They were packing, after a frugal breakfast. Yllyesh was wearing the clothes they had taken from the men who had tried to rob Lee-Lack. Although reasonably clean now, they weren’t a good fit. At least they wouldn’t proclaim him to be a Mukthar at first sight. His own clothes were tucked away in his saddlebags.
Lee-Lack took a look at Yllyesh’s shoulder and checked to see if his bandages were still tight enough. They were.
“I don’t like these clothes. They itch,” Yllyesh complained.
“Let’s go,” Lee-Lack said, mounting his horse and ignoring the Mukthar’s complaint. “This night we’ll have to sleep under the stars again, but the next day we should reach a nice tavern by late afternoon where a warm meal awaits us. And a warm bath.”
“You never explained why you took care of my injury instead of killing me,” Yllyesh said.
“No. I didn’t.” It was practically a growl and the young Mukthar decided not to insist.
“It’s a good question,” Lee-Lack thought. “Why indeed? I didn’t hesitate for a second to kill Ereon and his unhappy associates. Was it because Yllyesh is young and thus relatively innocent of the crimes of his fellow tribesmen? Was it because he was injured and helpless? He wasn’t all that harmless, though. Even injured he was a competent archer.”
“You’re rather proficient with a bow, so you must be used to them. How come they surprised you during the battle?”
“Totally different bows. Ours are small, light bows with a limited range. We’re trained to shoot them from horseback at short range, so precision isn’t all that important. The Ximerionians used large bows. Enormous bows. Man high, actually. I had never before seen them, though I had heard of them. Their power is tremendous. The archers were shooting from the far bank of the River Zinchara. We never expected the arrows to be able to cross the river and retain enough force to do actual harm. Well, we were wrong. Very wrong.”
“I too was wrong. About a lot of things,” Lee-Lack thought. “So, why…? Maybe I’m tired of being alone. Maybe I need someone to rely on me, like the robbers did. Like the whole county of Mirkadesh did.”
“What are your plans?” Lee-Lack asked.
They had been under way less than half an hour.
“Plans? I don’t have any plans. I told you I can’t return home. There’s nobody waiting there for me anyway. Do you want me to go my own way?”
It was a direct question, and an honest one, but put like that Lee-Lack couldn’t answer it unequivocally.
“You’re free to go, of course. Do you have any money?”
“I’ve been living from what I could shoot or trap, and from wild roots occasionally. I haven’t needed—”
“Eventually you will need money. You’ve been wandering on the Plains for weeks now. You can’t keep doing that indefinitely.”
“I know that. I will need to find shelter when winter comes in a few months.”
“Of course he doesn’t have any money. Why would they bring money or gold? They were planning on plundering it.”
“I suppose, if worst comes to worst, you could make some kind of a hut in the Pashira Forest. Maybe somewhere near the River Mirax. That would—”
“No. I can’t do that. Too dangerous.”
“Dangerous? There are wild animals, true, but that’s a good thing. You need to eat, don’t you? But other than that, nobody lives there.”
“You’re wrong. There’s a whole tribe living there.”
“What do you mean? There was nobody there a few months ago.”
“Well, there’s a lot of people living there now. I saw them.”
“What did they look like?”
“They looked like Mukthars because they are Mukthars.”
Again Lee-Lack startled with surprise.
“Well… Well, doesn’t that solve your problem? Why don’t you join them?”
Lee-Lack had sounded a bit disappointed, but Yllyesh didn’t pick up on it.
“It’s another tribe. If they ever caught me, it wouldn’t end well.”
“Would they kill you?”
“Worse. They would make me into a shorgah.”
“A shorgah. A non-human. Believe me, it’s a fate that doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Strange. He knew the meaning of the word rouwin, but he hasn’t heard of shorringah,” Yllyesh wondered silently.
“I thought Mukthar tribes worked together against common enemies.”
“Not these Mukthars. They’re a new tribe. That much vaunted sense of loyalty between tribes is greatly exaggerated, anyway.”
Lee-Lack frowned, trying to remember something his gran had casually mentioned.
“There’s a rumor going around that some renegade Mukthars fought with the warlord against their own people at the Zinchara,” he said, remembering after a while.
“Mukthars fighting for the prince-warlord. The Mirkadesh Home Guard putting itself under his command. He must have very shrewd advisers,” Lee-Lack thought.
The young Mukthar remained silent.
“Annishi, if you could see me now…” Yllyesh ruminated sadly. He had let his horse fall a few yards behind the former robber chief. He was sure the sadness in his eyes would elicit more questions than he was prepared to answer. “There’s one thing I’m happy for. You didn’t have to witness how your brother was treated. Ironically, if ever I fell into your brother’s hands I would end up a shorgah. Never mind you and I were — and in my mind we still are — rouwining. Not that it will ever happen. I’ll make sure to avoid him.”
“Let’s see if I have this right. You could end up losing your eyes if the soldiers of the little warlord catch you. If you were to fall into the hands of those, eh, other Mukthars, you’ll be treated as an animal—”
“You’ll be treated worse than an animal. You can’t return home, because, for one, the warlord will have closed the passes through the Somertian Mountains by now, and besides, you’re no longer welcome.”
Yllyesh didn’t reply.
“To sum up the situation, you’ve got no money and everybody hates you… Man, why don’t you just lie down and die already?”
“I’ll think of something,” Yllyesh said, but it didn’t sound very convincing.
“You’ve had weeks to think over your situation and to come up with something. If you haven’t by now, how likely is it you ever will?”
“Something… something might turn up.”
“All right then,” Lee-Lack said.
“Do you want me to leave?” Yllyesh asked.
They had stopped to eat and rest a bit.
“No. Not particularly. Figured something out, did you?”
Yllyesh colored red.
“No. I just don’t want to be a burden to you.”
Lee-Lack looked at the young Mukthar, checking him out as unobtrusively as he could.
“No, he’s not a puppy. Not exactly. He has the body of a full-grown dog, but with only the experience and adroitness of a puppy. He only wants to help, but he will run into things, make an awful mess, and he won’t understand why you are angry with him. He will look at you with big eyes full of wonder.”
“You’re no burden to me. And I did promise you a warm meal and warm bath, didn’t I?”
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